NEW YORK — There's new life in broadcast television's evening news shows, in part because of forces such as 24-hour cable news that were once thought ready to kill the genre off.
Despite repeated death knells for the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, the networks have just completed a TV season where all three grew their audiences for the first time since 2001-02, when terrorists struck and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began. The growth is continuing for the first few weeks of this season.
After years in which the network broadcasts seemed interchangeable, they now have sharp contrasts that go beyond the faces of anchors Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley. Each of the newscasts, which are collectively seen by more than 20 million people each weekday, changed its top executives over the past couple of months.
News is an obvious factor in audience growth, and the Japanese tsunami, Arab spring, debt ceiling debate and teetering economy all attracted interest. But busy and not-so-busy news periods fluctuate all the time.
Many pundits believed evening newscasts would become obsolete with the availability of news 24 hours a day on cable TV and the Internet. Instead, the curating function of the evening news has become more vital.
"We all work so hard and we all do so much," said Patrick Burkey, executive producer of NBC's top-rated "Nightly News," which had its highest viewership since 2005 for the season that ended in September. "I get to the point where I sort of have Internet fatigue going out there looking for all the material myself. It's nice to have somebody else do that work."
People follow news, "but they want someone they trust at the end of the day to explain it to them, to show what it means to them. Somebody credible," said Michael Corn, executive producer of ABC's "World News" with Sawyer.
Brand name journalists mean something when people can't trust the accuracy of what they see online, said Dave Marash, a veteran journalist who worked at ABC News and Al-Jazeera English.
Marash wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review about the declining number of reported and edited stories on television news, as opposed to journalists talking live or experts arguing. There are fewer of those reported stories on the network evening news programs, too, but they have disappeared much faster on 24-hour cable news; news, or news unfiltered by a point of view, is harder to find on cable.
"There have been enough obituaries written about the evening news to fill a newspaper," said Patricia Shevlin, "CBS Evening News" executive producer. "But it's a very resilient commodity."
Shevlin, Burkey and Corn are all new to their jobs, but not to their institutions. Shevlin has been at CBS News since 1973 and spent most of her time at the evening news since 1989, most recently as the top weekend producer. Burkey has worked with Williams since 2000, first at MSNBC and, since 2004, at "Nightly News." Corn worked at "Good Morning America" from 2002 to 2010, and moved with Sawyer last year to "World News."
The ratings pecking order of NBC in first, ABC second and CBS third hasn't changed since the days of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The content of the shows, at least two of them, has changed, though. Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose ADT Research has monitored the broadcasts since 1987, said the shows are as different as they've been in at least 15 years.
Since CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager installed Pelley of "60 Minutes" as Katie Couric's replacement in June, CBS has aired a meat-and-potatoes newscast for a serious time.
CBS has devoted more time to foreign policy and economic subjects than either of the two other shows, according to Tyndall's research. Pelley has been to Afghanistan twice since becoming anchor, and his newscasts have reported on that conflict for more minutes than both ABC and NBC combined.
Pelley has spent more than three full hours reporting on the economy than the other two broadcasts, with a particular emphasis on unemployment, the housing crisis and increased poverty.